29 Palms Votes To Return $50M Grant To The State Of California

In a move that will likely delay the community from switching from a septic system to a modern sewer system for another generation, the Twentynine Palms City Council this week voted to return $50 million to the State of California that was intended to cover a substantial portion of constructing a wastewater treatment plant and effluent collection system.
That vote, cast unanimously among all five members, came on December 12.
Undercutting the proposed project were strong disagreements about where the plant was to be located, after the city made a previous tentative commitment to construct it site northwest of the intersection of Twentynine Palms Highway and Utah Trail.
For those with homes and businesses near that location, that was an unacceptable alternative.
According to resident Joseph Carder, constructing the plant in its currently-planned for location would potentially render nearby businesses unviable and subject the city’s downtown district to the west, the Oasis of Mara and 29 Palms Inn to the south, Campbell House to the east and Twentynine Palms Elementary School to the north to devaluation.
City officials had initially planned on locating the sewage treatment plant on Amboy Road east of Adobe Road, but the water district had concerns about having the treatment plant that close to the Twentynine Palms Water District’s fluoride treatment plant.
Former Twentynine Palms City Manager Frank Luckino was instrumental in pushing the city toward undertaking the project. In October, however, he left Twentynine Palms to become city manager in Desert Hot Springs. In one of his last acts as city manager in Twentynine Palms, he cataloged through alternate sites. Virtually every viable alternative, he told the city council and public in October, in particular moving the plant further east where it would have no or little impact on existing development, would represent a problem relating to system efficiency and added cost. The farther east the plant goes, the greater distance the sewer lines must extend, adding costs to the project. Going much farther than Utah Trail, to as far east as the existent off-road motorcycle track would burden the project with at least $8 million more in cost and as much as $10 million more. The proposed location north of Highway 62 and west of Utah Trail, according to Luckino, offers the best spot in terms of topography, such that gravity will do much of the work. Locating it elsewhere, he said, would make the undertaking more expensive, as lift stations would be needed to pump the effluent uphill and raising the line to prevent it from being subject to damage from flooding would be required.
The rising cost of the project had a bearing on the city’s decision to discontinue with the project for the time being.
Some community members and even some officials believed, perhaps somewhat naively and unrealistically, that the city could get sufficient money from the state and federal government to pay for the project or the lion’s share of it. Indeed, some state and federal money did come available.
In September 2021, Congressman Jay Obernolte obtained $45 million in federal money to pay for the construction of a wastewater treatment plant in Twentynine Palms, one that was to service, in the main, the Marine Corp Air Ground Combat Center, but which would also offer some treatment capability for a portion of the City of Twentynine Palms.
In the February/March 2023 timeframe, then-Twentynine Palms City Manager Frank Luckino, who at one time had been the assistant general manager/chief financial officer of the Hi-Desert Water District in Yucca Valley, had the city push ahead with seeking state funding/state grants for completing Twentynine Palms sewer system. In doing so, Luckino and city staff tentatively identified the sewer plant site in the vicinity of Two Mile Road and Utah Trail, west of Sunmore Estates.
Last month, the state came through with a $50 million grant to complete that work. Conceptually, the city is exploring the potential to tie the Marine base sewer system together with that portion of the city’s system that will be most proximate to the base. The city is under the gun to firm up its plans and present them to Sacramento to ensure the delivery of the $50 million.
Shortly after the city identified the plant location at Two Mile Road and Utah Trail, nearby residents, business interests and landowners let their objections be known. Simultaneously, it was learned that certain presumptions about cost from three and four years ago had been too low. City officials were caught between the state and local residents and businesses who did not want the plant at the planned-for site, high costs, a degree of complication in dispensing with the plan to relocate it from the site near Two Mile Road and Utah Trail and scrambling to find a new site, on top of which would come even more cost.
The city had planned, in constructing the system, to build the collection system in five phases, with the first phase involving laying down 10 miles of pipeline and no lift stations at a cost of $31 million in current dollars; a second phase in which 20 miles of pipeline would be laid into the ground with no lift stations at a cost of $58 million current dollars; the third phase of 26 miles of pipeline and no lift stations at a cost of $83 million in current dollars;, the fourth phase entailing 17 miles of pipeline with no lift stations at a cost of $51 million current dollars and the fifth and final phase of 40 miles of pipeline with seven lift stations at a cost of $133 million in current dollars. The construction of the collection system would consist of laying in 113 miles of pipeline and seven lift stations at a total cost of $356 million in current dollars.
The sewer plant was to be built to easily accommodate the processing of 900,0000 gallons of effluent per day. The city was taking a piecemeal approach to the project, thinking of it in phases. The $31 million first phase was eminently doable, particularly if it had the $50 million in state funding in hand. But moving the plant eastward and other project cos escalations appeared to be inflating the first phase to $60 million or beyond that to as much as $65 million. One concept to cut down on the cost of the project was to shrink the scope of the system to a less than 900,000 gallon treatment capacity. But officials began asking themselves of what value a system with insufficient capacity would be.
Upon interim City Manager Larry Bowden stating that the project’s construction could balloon to as much as $70.8 million, of which at least $52 million would be used to construct the treatment plant, the council began to get cold feet. When he reported that it would cost each household in the city up to $3,300 a year to be connected to and use the system, the council gave up the ghost. As late as early this month, there had been representations that upon the city receiving the state grant, existing residences would be able to hook up to the sewer system at no cost. Having now returned the state money, if the system is to be constructed, homeowners will be saddled with a cost of about $12,000 each in 2023 dollars to tie into the system, followed by the exorbitant $3,000 plus per year service charge.
One of the city’s leading lights, George Mulopulous. By letter sought to encourage the council to push ahead with the project.
But others who had been prime movers with regard to undertaking the proposed project, such as Karalee Hargrove, a member of the city’s wastewater committee, acknowledged financial reality had rendered the project unviable at this point.
The city council concurred.
Mark Gutglueck

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